Why Are Soccer Balls Made of Hexagons?

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Once upon a time, soccer balls (or footballs, depending on where you hail from) were inflated pig bladders wrapped in leather. One variation was an ancient Chinese game called “tsu chu,” using a ball stuffed with feathers. In medieval England, players used leather-covered wine bottles filled with cork shavings (to make them easily retrievable if they fell in the river). It wasn’t until 1844, when Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber, that soccer balls started taking shape. Literally.

In 1855, Goodyear created the first rubber soccer ball. Then, seven years later, H.J. Lindon developed an inflatable rubber bladder to make the ball easier to kick and maintain its pseudo-spherical shape. White soccer balls became the standard in 1951 (companies whitewashed the leather, and in the 1960s, began to use synthetic materials to achieve uniform thickness and prevent the balls from becoming misshapen), and if teams played winter matches, official orange soccer balls were manufactured for better visibility.

But the ball most commonly seen today—the one with black and white pentagons and hexagons—gained popularity in the 1960s.* Previously, leather soccer balls consisted of 18 sections stitched together: six panels of three strips apiece. This design stitched together 20 hexagons with 12 pentagons for a total of 32 panels.

The ball made its World Cup debut as Adidas’ Telstar in 1970 in Mexico. The ball's pattern of white hexagons with black pentagons made it easily visible on television. An added bonus for players: The black pentagons helped them learn to curve the ball better by being able to track its movement more easily.

Adidas kept the ball's black-and-white color scheme until 2002, but the 32-panel buckyball might not stay in vogue much longer—Adidas launched its new generation of soccer balls for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups with the Teamgeist (14 panels) and Jabulani (8 panels) designs, respectively.

* Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the ball was invented by architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller. That would have been amazing. We sheepishly regret the error. Line up for a penalty kick.